Days after violent protests over wages as low as $80 a month, officials in Bangladesh said on Wednesday they would increase the pay of garment workers by about 50 percent, a concession that appeared to fall short of satisfying thousands of workers who produce clothes for brands like H&M and Zara.
Over the weekend, at least two garment factory workers were killed and several police officers wounded in Gazipur District, north of Dhaka, as protesters ratcheted up their longstanding demand for higher wages. The police used tear gas to disperse protesters after some breached the gates of factories and vandalized them, leading to temporary shutdowns for manufacturers of ready-made garments that reach more than 150 countries.
The garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of Bangladesh’s annual exports of about $55 billion, and it is seen as the key driver of Bangladesh’s economic growth in recent decades. More than 50 percent of employees in the industry are women, in a region with abysmal female participation in the formal work force. Even during Covid lockdowns, the government took measures to make sure factories remained open.
Union leaders said on Wednesday that they would continue their protests after the increase in the minimum wage announced by the government fell far short of their demand for a more than 150 percent increase for entry-level workers. They are calling for an increase to about $200 a month to meet the rising cost of living.
Bangladesh’s wage board on Tuesday announced a 56 percent increase in the minimum wage, to about $113 per month. Officials also said that four other categories of wages would rise by about 50 percent. Even with a pay increase, the highest-paid bracket of workers would receive a salary of only $135 a month.
Prodip Ray, a leader of the Revolutionary Garment Workers Solidarity union, said factory workers had taken to the streets as repeated promises of higher wages had not materialized.
“We believe the proposed salary falls short of providing workers with the means to lead a healthy life,” Mr. Ray said.
Mr. Ray, whose union is one of dozens participating in the protests, said they were increasingly worried that the protesting workers would face repercussions from the government and factory owners.
As the country’s longtime leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, competes in an election scheduled for early next year, the story of economic success she was hoping to campaign on has unraveled, in part because of external factors like rising fuel and food costs stemming from the war in Ukraine.
At a gathering last week, Ms. Hasina appeared to blame the minimum wage protests on the opposition Bangladesh National Party, which has faced a widespread crackdown by her government, with a large number of its supporters and leaders in jail. She also warned protesters against vandalizing factories.
“Garment workers should remember that if they damage factories, they may have to return to their villages and live without employment,” Ms. Hasina told the gathering in Dhaka. “We are aware of who incited these protests and acts of vandalism, and we know which individuals from B.N.P. are involved.”
Low pay has long plagued Bangladesh’s garment industry.
Sohel Islam, 26, a garment worker, said his salary totaled about $100 a month, even with the few hours of overtime he could manage.
He said he became a garment worker after his electric supply store was forced to close during the pandemic. Even though his family of three, including a 2-year-old son, has cut their consumption of protein to just once every two weeks, they still rely on aid from a brother who works in Saudi Arabia.
“I’m not sure the garment industry can provide me a better life if my salary remains like this,” he said.
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Mumbai.